Blessed to be a witness

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Monday, March 21st

Up and away

Last night we met our driver, Gyatso. Nice guy, but not a word of English - not a requirement, of course, for a Tibetan in Tibet, but a distinct disadvantage for someone in the tourism industry. He has a bindi tattooed on his forehead, and a swastika on his hand ("oh my God he's a neo-nazi!" I told M).

This morning he met us early in the street with an older gentleman who anointed us with white scarves for the journey, a blessing usually reserved for laypeople to lamas, and then disappeared.

Then Gyatso drove us into the mountains - not fast, as he'd been instructed - he swallowed the usual third-world pride that makes people in faster vehicles overtake everything in sight. Either that, or our 20-year-old Toyota Land Cruiser just didn't have the juice.

Out of Lhasa, past the tunnel in which we thought we were going to be murdered on our arrival, then into the countryside on the tarmacked 'South Friendship Highway'. The south and north highways were built by the Chinese in conjunction with a Chinese-funded highway on the Nepalese side of the border. We ascended a gentle incline through sleepy Tibetan villages, until we were stopped by man wearing an official-looking tabard over his peasant clothes. He had a string extended across the highway, and was spinning wool into yarn on a portable bobbin. Gyatso attempted to negotiate past him, but after about ten minutes we had to retreat: the Northern Friendship Highway was shut, for reasons not apparent to us.

He then drove us a few kilometres along the road to the airport before driving off onto a dirt track that led through increasingly tattered and dusty villages, past a monastery, and then up a valley. And then up a switchback trail that climbed higher and higher up a hill, until we crossed the snowline. Then still higher, on the edges of precipices, passing the occasional farm truck or being passed by 4WDs haring their way crazily above the valley floor. After an hour of bouncing around in the Cruiser, we finally crested the top of the hill, where grateful drivers had built a cairn of stones and tied prayer flags and white scarves in abundance to it. We got out, well above 4,000 metres' elevation, and felt none the worse for the altitude.

After the third grinding attempt, Gyatso restarted the Cruiser, and we drove down the other side of the hill, not quite as vertiginously, and we caught our first glimpse of the turquoise Yamdrok-tso lake. Because of our detour we spent an extra hour circumnavigating the vast, curved, narrow lake that just about rings a bloom of dozens of 5,000 metre peaks. The road around the lake was in appalling condition, and the suspension in the Cruiser very very hard - leaf springs only, and our arses were killing us after only three hours on the road.

In each lakeside valley was another barren, dusty village. The thought that often occurs to me when I see things like this, occured again: why? Who would live there? What possible living could you make from the dust and the dirt and the lake too cold to bear much life at all? My own life is so far removed from the answers to these simple questions that, though they could be answered, I don't think I'd truly comprehend them.

Finally we rejoined the Friendship Highway by driving through an abandoned yard at the Chinese hydroelectric power station that is robbing the lake of its improbably blue and irreplacable water. The highway by this stage wasn't much better than the lakeside track, having lost its tarmac, though a trifle wider. There's a distinct understatement in many guidebooks that goes by the title of "bad roads". These aren't roads, dammit, they're rutted tracks. Washboarded and potholed, sometimes covered in ice or water. In the back of the Land Cruiser they were sheer torture, and meant Gyatso couldn't drive at more than 30kmh.

After a few more dozen minutes of uncomfortable bouncing around, we were set upon by a crowd of nomads and peasants, who seemingly forbade use from proceeding, and demanded 20 yuan for something or other. After some confused milling around, another 4WD tried to make a run for it across a small valley, but had to turn back. Our driver wasn't, however, going anywhere, so we grudgingly coughed up without bargaining, and the nomads indicated an alternative route across the marshland on the lakeside, from which we realised that the Highway had actually collapsed further on. After this blackmail, and a lot more bumping around, we arrived at the tiny town of Nagatse, where we had a superb Chinese lunch for about 5 yuan each.

From the lake valley we then ascended to our highest altitude yet: 5,045 metres above sea level, at a pass alongside the 7,191 metre Nojin Kangtsang mountain: our first real Himalayan mountain, festooned with perilous snow overhangs that made me long for a shotgun to cause a casualty-free avalanche for my amusement, there being no humanity anywhere for miles around. Again we disembarked at the prayer flags, and again felt no ill effects. I even smoked a cigarette.

Our guidebook promised us spectacular views of a roadside glacier, but there was nothing there. Just a gulley with a tiny bit of ice hanging gamely, several tens of metres up the mountainside. I don't know if this is a seasonal glacier or not - does such a thing exist? - but I found it rather troubling that such a vast thing had apparently ceased to be. The BBC World Service a few days ago had mentioned that diminishing Himalayan glaciation was removing significant amounts of water from the supply to South Asia and a quarter of the world's population. Maybe this is an example - and if so, it's a dramatic one.

And then an interminable drive, clinging to the steep valley walls on the dirt road, until eventually we saw the fortress and monastery of Gyantse, our night's destination. We drove for the best part of seven hours, and covered under 200 kilometres. Now we have found ourselves ensconsed in a fairly 'posh' Chinese hotel, heavily discounted, that even has hot showers, and merely lacks heating.

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